Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gave his Thought for the Day yesterday on BBC Radio Four. His principal observation was the crucial sanctuary which places of worship provide from the demands of a success-obsessed modern world. It might matter what car you’re driving or what brand you’re wearing outside a church, mosque or synagogue, but once inside one it does not, all of us equal in the eyes of Jesus, Mohammed or Yahweh.
Sacks is right, and such places are, therefore, of immense value. As I’m neither a practicing Christian, Muslim nor Jew, I wondered where I could go to experience such equality and humanity.
I found it, later that day, in the most unlikely of places, in the communal showers of my local leisure centre. I’d gone for a workout – the need to get rid of a number of days’ accumulation of hard work and restlessness (yes, it is called a “workout” for this very reason) – and afterwards, standing sweaty, worn-out and naked as I hung my towel on a shower hook, I was confronted by an elderly man as hot, exhausted and exposed as me.
We smiled at one another, then turned simultaneously and took the few small steps to the showers, communal showers not divided by partitions, the kind of showers typical of old schools or sports’ pavillions, modesty not permitted. A line of four shower heads with corresponding taps, no more than this.
“Good workout?” he inquired.
“Yes,” I replied. “And you?”
“Well, it’s still working,” he said, putting his hand on his heart, “that’s the main thing,” and I smiled at this existential sentiment.
We walked to either end of the showers and pushed the taps, both of us, it seems, in spite of our amicable exchange, wanting separateness.
The water was cold, however, both from my shower and his. We flinched at the same time.
I took a step to my left and stood under the next shower head. He did the same, though in his case this required a step to his right.
Side by side now, both of us hoped that these two remaining shower heads would offer warm water.
“Here we go,” he said, smiling at me as he pressed the tap, and I did the same.
“It’s warm, thank goodness,” I exclaimed, humming with relief.
“Yes, mine too,” he answered contentedly.
And so there we stood, side by side, two men who knew nothing of one another but for our mutual aversion to cold water and the fact that we had both worked something out of ourselves, in his case old age perhaps.
As I showered, letting the water hit my face and run down my chest and back and legs, I suddenly found myself not separate from but together with this man, who, though a stranger, I felt very close to.
The reason for this was clear. Both naked, no more than flesh and bone, his hunched back as visible to me as my ample stomach was to him, we were unable to hide our imperfections from one another, the truth of ourselves beneath the material trappings of life outside these communal showers, the trappings of cars, clothes and houses which contain a multitude of lies. In this open and candid environment, which had a fondness for truth in all its beauty and ugliness, like a place of worship I had found great equality and humanity.
And I savoured this sense – it felt like a precious gift – and stood there longer than I normally would have. And neither of us spoke. We did not need to.